Once a week, Gerald Harmon turns off his welding equipment at Caterpillar Work Tools Inc. and heads to West Jacksonville Elementary. Once there, he’s surrounded by the smiles of a small group of four-year-olds who greet him with hugs, knowing he’s there to help them with their pre-reading skills. Harmon is a ReadingPals volunteer, a United Way initiative to help develop literacy skills in preschoolers. It’s a role that he embraces – a dream come true.
“My brother and I dreamed we’d be millionaires and open a home for boys,” said Harmon. “We’d find some way to give back.”
His own childhood was difficult.
At first, it was his parents’ separation. His father was inconsistent, and his mom became involved in an unhealthy relationship. And then, one day, his mom didn’t come home. For three days, then nine-year-old Harmon tried to keep the four children in his family together. His brother was six, his sister one and the baby was six months old. He was in charge.
“My mom told us that she was going to get the TV fixed,” he said. “I thought something terrible must have happened.”
She didn’t come back. After neighbors became aware of the children struggling to handle life on their own, the authorities were called. Their life together ended. Foster care and group homes became the norm.
It could have been another dark, sad story after that.
But, they were lucky. The little girls ended up with a foster mother who adored them, and the boys eventually found themselves at the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home in Atlanta, Georgia. The Steele-Pitts Home has a profound history of helping abandoned children since the 1800s. For more than 50 years, it has been a United Way-funded agency. They were looked after with love and caring.
“We had everything we needed,” said Harmon. He looked up to the adults who came to events at the home, and he was inspired by the home’s staff. That’s where the dream started, to be able to help children just as he’d been helped.
Harmon didn’t become a millionaire, but his welding skills have enabled him to raise two daughters by himself.
“I never saw myself as a weekend father,” said Harmon. “I wanted to tuck them into bed every night.” Although Harmon wished that the girls hadn’t had to experience his separation from their mother, he says it was an answered prayer that he has been able to be with them every day. He has enjoyed guiding them from childhood to high school.
Harmon credits the operations manager at Caterpillar, John Hoffer, for inspiring his co-workers to support United Way and encouraging him to be a ReadingPals volunteer.
“It helps keep jobs in Jacksonville. It helps break down the monotony of work, to be able to reach out. We’re grateful to be working, it’s a reminder of how fortunate we are,” said Harmon about the United Way involvement at Caterpillar.
“In my soul, I’m still that young kid searching for his parents.”
The day that he was waiting for the bus and heard a young voice say “Look mom, that’s the guy that reads to us,” brought it all home.
“When Caterpillar asked us for time, it brought me right back. I don’t have to be rich. I can be a regular Joe, someone that looks like me, an African-American male, who reads to them. They liked it. God put this in front of me and I have to do it.”[hr]
Learn more about ReadingPals and sign up to volunteer with our littlest learners today![hr]